Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Busy Week!

So the beginning of this week brought good news...I was parasite free.  I had decided a few weeks ago that I really, really needed more raw vegetables in my life.  I think this is likely the first time that I have ever, really, really missed a good salad!  I carefully brought produce, washed it as I had been instructed and devoured blissfully.  However, it is likely this that introduced parasites into my system.  After a quick visit to a lab and a meeting with a very nice doctor - who prescribed an anti-parasitic medication and told me I needed to buy disinfectant for my veggies, I am back on track.   With the help of other foreigners at CIS, I tracked down the disinfectant - soaked my veggies this week and so far all is good gastro-intestinally speaking!  Salvadorians don't generally use this product because the don't eat raw vegetables.  Jonathan, my 23 year old housemate sat me down this week and explained me to how this wasn't Canada and I really shouldn't eat raw food.  I explained to him, that I really needed to.  Now every time he sees me eating something raw he asks if it has been disinfected!

This has been a busy week for the Elections Team.  We had two special meetings.  The first was with the Sub-Comandante of Public Security at the PNC (El Salvador's National and only Police Force).  The meeting was in the administrative headquarters - a breathtakingly beautiful building known as "el castillo" (the castle).  From the outside that is what it looks like.  Inside the tile work and ceilings were exquisite.  Unfortunately I forgot my camera that day, so there are no pictures!  It is like no other building I have ever seen in El Salvador.

The Sub-Comandante talked a lot about the role of the police during the election campaign and on election day.  Protecting International Observers is one of their 5 main roles!  He also talked about how residential voting is a huge logistical challenge for their department.  Significantly increasing the number of voting sites means that the force will be more divided up on election day.  In another blog I talked about the problems of caring for the "Election Boxes" that contain all the materials for the polling stations (including ballots, voters lists etc.).  Apparently, the Police are not allowed to actually touch the boxes, rather they can only provide security.  The boxes cannot travel in Police vehicles, rather they are escorted.  I have to tell you, I am constantly reminded of how little I know about the logistical details of our elections!  It was an interesting meeting and I am thrilled because I am actually understand a lot of what is being said.

An interesting note, the PNC reclaimed "el castillo" when the National Guard was disbanded after the Civil War.  This building served as the headquarters of the National Guard and was the site of many brutal interrogations that included torture and often resulted in death.  It is said that this building is very haunted at night and that it is possible to hear screams of people suffering and mothers weeping looking for their sons.  There is almost nothing that I have experienced in this country that is not somehow linked to the war.

Later this week, we also met with a staff member of the government agency that protects humans rights.  This too was created as part of the peace accords.   This agency will have volunteer observers, who like our team of observers, will watch and note but will not have the power to intervene.  They will also have staff teams who will be able to intervene if human rights violations occur on voting day.  The most common type of violation is refusing to allow someone to vote.  This happens most frequently in smaller places where everyone knows the party affiliation of everyone else.

We also took a field trip and visited the three municipios where I will be co-ordinating teams - San Isidro, Guacotecti and Sensuntepeque.  We visited the police stations and with members of the local election boards and with the provincial election board.  No matter where we went this week, everyone was glad to hear that there would be observers and offered help in whatever way we needed.  In fact, generally everyone we met with asked if could also cover additional areas.  Sadly because of the number of volunteers this likely won't be possible.

In fact that has been one of the  most moving parts of this week for me -  how welcoming everyone is of observers.   Interestingly, my sister's Christmas package arrived this week after 2 months in the mail.  The woman at the post office is never happy to see me.  She cannot figure out why a "tourist" would be receiving packages.  While she begrudging accepts my Canadian Passport as ID she is not happy about it.  Last time she made me go down the street and have my whole passport photocopied so that she could attach it to her official "post office book".  This time, I happened to be wearing my "official Observer ID badge".  It is made on a computer at CIS.  We will get one from the Government but that will be much closer to the actual  election.  This time, she asked to see my badge, said "oh" and then filled out the paperwork and gave me my package with no questions.  Apparently being an "observer" has its privileges!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Busy Week

It has been a busy week.  Like a lot of weeks here, I have learned a lot about a lot of different things.

On Friday last week, I returned to ADES for the first time in a month.  People were glad to see me and I was happy to reconnect with them.  People are interested in what I am doing and learning.  I got caught up on the work, but I also got caught up on the "people news".  One woman is pregnant and another is really in love for the first time.  One person asked for my help with homework from his English course.  Some other people asked me to have lunch with them.  I met with Jimmy and Edwin, my English students and they had a lot of questions for me about the differences between words, pronunciation and expressions.  It really did feel like returning to my community.  What a great feeling after all of months of struggling with being here.

As you may recall, I am attending an English language, inter-denominational church here in San Salvador.  The theology of the Church is much more traditional than I prefer.   While there are parts of the service that feel familiar, there is also much that feels very uncomfortable.  However, it is the only English language church and so on that basis it feels more comfortable than the Spanish alternatives.  I have to confess this week I realized that attending this Church was teaching me a lot about accompanying.  A big part of what I think it means to accompany is to listen.  This week I was embarrassed to realize how easily I would have in Canada discounted the theology of this Church.  In among the parts that are out of my comfort zone have been some moments of great clarity and learning for me.  Some of what I have gotten out of the services have been pivotal points in redesigning my life here in El Salvador.  Accompanying is a bit about listening and learning even when at first glance it appears that this place will have nothing to offer.   I have thought about how at home I quickly make judgments and if something doesn't "fit" well very quickly, I move on.  In Canada, I would never have attended this Church more than once.  While many of the members of Union Church of San Salvador and I will disagree on many things, I have learned we have a lot more in common than I would have initially thought.

Sadly, there have been challenges on the election front.  One of the issues involves the people of Santa Marta and the young staff at Radio Victoria.  To summarize a complex issue, basically a large flag from a right wing party was put on private property in Santa Marta, (a very left-wing community), without the permission of the land owner.  This is not permitted under Salvadorian law.  The people were angry and annoyed as there is a very long history of animosity between the village of Santa Marta and the right wing Mayor of Victoria (the city that is the catchment for Santa Marta).  Some people decided to return the flag to the office of the Mayor.  This event was covered live by Radio Victoria a community radio station staffed mostly by youth and young adults.  As a result of their coverage of this event, 6 staff of Radio Victoria received death threats.
Next week there will be a meeting between the people of Santa Marta and the JED - Provincial Electoral Committee.  They have asked for International Observers for this meeting.  I will be going in that role as will other members of the team.   I am very pleased to be able to support my community by observing and reporting what is going on.

This is a volatile time in many places in El Salvador.  We in the International Community are not at risk.  In fact we are not permitted to be involved in political events.  We can be deported immediately.  We have all be advised to stay away from the large political events.  However, it is difficult time in this troubled country.  This week also marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the brutal 12 year civil war.  In an unprecedented move President Funes visited El Mazote, the site of the worst massacre of the war and acknowledged publicly what happened there.  He acknowledged that it was not a legitimate act of war but rather was a violation of International Law.   This is clearly still a country divided and the election campaign only serves to highlight the divisions.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Seeing Canada Through Fresh Eyes

Okay, so it is true, I have been enjoying the feeling of being competent this week.  I am one of the people that the "newbies", the new volunteers seek out for information about a variety of issues related to living and working in El Salvador.  I have taken to leading groups to different  places for lunch.  For those of you who remember how directionally challenged I am will know what a feat this is in a place where there are rarely street signs and everything is sorted out by landmarks.

I have also been reminded of how much I have changed this year.  I look at the fresh faces of the new volunteers at CIS who want to "do things" and to "be competent".  They haven't yet figured out that we are going to look foolish a thousand times here -- in what we say, don't say, do and don't do.  They also haven't figured out that people here don't have the same expectation of perfection as we do at home.  They truly do appreciate effort and kindness.  They are also struggling with being in a new place, with new people and trying to do a new job that they only "kind of" understand.  I find myself saying some of the very annoying but true things that people said to me.  "Don't worry, you haven't been here that long" - "It will all work out" - "Your Spanish will get better."  I see my culture in these folks and I am reminded of home.  I wonder when I come home if I will turn back into one these people or if I will be somewhere between the laid back, relaxed Lynn I am here and the person with an enormous "to do" list I typically am  in Canada.

In order to be Election Observer Co-ordinator I am learning a lot about the government and electoral system.  Like everything here it is complicated.  People have a much higher loyalty to their political party than the system of laws.  All of the people working on the elections are from a party.  Since in general people from the left wing party and the right wing parties don't agree on anything, it takes a long time to get things done and things get very complicated.  For example, 3 days before the election,  the electoral committees in each city/region will receive "boxes" with all of the stuff that each table (polling station) needs.  For 3 days people from each party and Police Officers stay awake and "care" for the boxes, no one trusting the other not to open the boxes and steal ballots.  People do not trust each other or the Police to act with integrity.  Everything needs to be checked and double checked by people from all the parties.  While there are 4 main parties, there are in fact 9 parties participating in these elections.  For every committee each party has a representative and a "vigilante", someone who watches to make sure that everything is done properly.

I have no idea who looks after the election boxes in Canada, but I can bet that there is not a group of people staying awake for 3 days.  If it is the role of the Police, we'd basically trust them to look after the boxes.  Not here.  The more I understand about the history of El Salvador, the more I understand this behaviour.

Our program coordinator Vicenta (a very politically involved Salvadorian), finds it hard to believe that none of us really know how voter fraud is prevented in our countries (Canada, US and England).  We just basically say, that we don't really think it happens very much.  There is not a huge group of people who want to vote twice.  The political parties in Canada aren't out rounding up Americans to cross the boarder with fake ID's to   have them vote for them on election day.  Every day I become and more and more thankful for our politicians and our political system.  While not perfect, I appreciate its benefits a lot more.

Finally, an update about the girls.  Nigeli the older girl has experienced a significant improvement in her eye function as a result of the surgery she has this summer.  It was a long road and she had eye and ear infections as complications from the surgery, but all is well.  Unfortunately, her younger sister Katherine continues to battle lung issues.  Despite a wide range of medications, made possible by the generosity of Canadians, there has not been a significant improvement.  As a result, she has not been able to have eye surgery.   Everyone continues to be hopeful.

I have also learned this week, that 5 friends from Canada will join the Election Observer Team here in El Salvador in March.  I am very excited about this development and look forward to welcoming people here to do this important work.  Thank you, all of you who read my blog and who support my journey in so many ways.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Happy New Year!!!!

Hello everyone - Happy New Year from El Salvador.  I have started streaming CHYM-FM my local radio station in K-W.  I have to admit to a "guilty pleasure" when I hear the weather in the morning as I putting on my jeans/t-shirt/hoodie (it's been a bit chilly here in the early mornings!) to head out for my day.  Today (Saturday morning) it is sunny and +3 in K-W and people are celebrating.  Here it is sunny and by noon will likely be about +30.  The climate, particularly this time of year is definitely one of my favourite things here.   

With the new year, my life and schedule has changed a bit.  I am spending a lot more time in San Salvador.  I think this will likely be the case for January.  The elections are only about 2 months away.  They occur on Sunday, March 11th and there is much to learn and much to do.  A new group of election volunteers arrived this week, 3 lovely young women from the US.  Luke who was volunteering at CIS previously has now moved into the elections program.  He is a Latin American studies major from England.  They are a lovely group and I am enjoying getting to know them.

This week I was assigned an honest to goodness job!  In addition to my other general election training and organizing I am acting as the "registrar assistant" for the election observers coming in for the week of the elections.  There will be colour coding, file folders and spead sheets in my future!!! I am so excited to have a "job" that I can run with and that feels like something I can actually do, that is actually helpful.  It is interesting how a year ago I was looking forward to the break from "real work" and being able to spend more time being and learning and thinking.  A year later, I am thrilled and delighted to have a task of my own to do.  

This brings me to what I have been thinking a lot about this week...what has happened over the past year???  It seems incredible to me that 2011 -- my year of adventure is over.  This is 2012 -- my relaunch year.  So if you will indulge me, I'll share with you a few of my thoughts about highlights and lowlights of 2011.

*I've lived for almost a year in El Salvador.   Although there are still a few glitches from time to time, I can manage daily life here.  I understand the difference between a "ticket" (a receipt)  and a "factura" (itemized bill)  when I pay for things at the grocery store.  I understand that "effectivo" means I am paying in cash rather than using my credit card.  I understand that you pay the bus driver when you get on a bus in San Salvador, but you pay the "cobrador" (other person, not the driver) when you get on an inter-city bus.  In San Salvador the full-sized buses cost .20 while the smaller micro buses cost .25.  Also, very important, there are two types of pupusas - rice and corn.  While generally foreigners prefer the corn pupusas, most salvadorians prefer rice pupusas.  

This week one day there was a protest that blocked several of the major roads in San Salvador.  In order to get to CIS I needed to get off one bus, walk for a bit and then get on another bus.  I sorted all of this out and while I got to CIS much later than usual, I got there with very few problems.  It felt a bit like a victory - being able to sort this out on my own.  It was also one of the two times that I have ever forgotten my cell phone, so I couldn't call for information...I needed to work it out by myself.

*My Spanish is much improved!  I have a ton more to learn, my pronunciation is still weak and so is my grammar.  However, my vocabulary is much broader and in general, I can make myself understood and I can understand the basic message from most Salvadorians (but not always!).  This has been such a battle for me.  I have needed to change my expectations a lot.  I have had to learn about how to laugh at myself...I say a lot of things in Spanish that don't always come out the way I wanted them to.  I've had to learn how to risk looking foolish because otherwise I'd never say anything in Spanish. 

*Without a doubt the highlight has been having the opportunity to get to know a group of wonderful, gracious, kind and fun Salvadorians.  I understand a lot more about the realities of living in this beautiful and troubled country.  I appreciate their patience and care in trying to get through life safely here with a  limited understanding of their language and culture.  

*Gaining a better understanding of the depth and extent of the challenges here.   There are such serious and profound obstacles to just about everything.  Systems that I never gave much thought to in Canada are so broken here.  It is hard sometimes to not feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by it all.  My salvadorian friends find hope and so I need to continue to have hope too...something I remember during dark times.  When I see and know things that cause me to feel very judgmental, I need to remember that there is a reason why people are acting this way.  Generally placing the action or decision in this cultural context makes it seem a lot more logical and understandable but often it is still very troubling...

*Appreciating the amount of privilege I have simply by being Canadian.  I have a few friends right now who are sick.   I am deeply saddened by the level of health care they are able to access here.  Although our system has issues, I don't think I will ever complain about it again - knowing what I now know.

*Feeling very different most of the time.  In some ways this can be considered a highlight because I have learned so much about what it is like to be different, to not be able to communicate as well as I'd like and to just sometimes want stuff to be the same as home.  At times I have been more lonely, bored and sad than I have ever been in my life.   

Before I left Canada, I used the getting ready to have a baby metaphor for this time in my life.  This week I have the pleasure of talking to a friend who recently had welcomed a baby girl into their lives.  It struck me again how apt the metaphor is.    Although this time away has definitely been more challenging than I ever could have imagined, it has also been more rewarding and fulfilling than I ever dreamed was possible...a lot like what having a baby seems to be like.  Thanks for being with me on this journey!